Harold Burnham and his hand-built ships are the living embodiment of a New England town’s traditions

Paul Revere’s bell hangs in the tower above the 18th-century First Congregational Church in Essex, Massachusetts. Nearby, the 82-ton Evelina M. Goulart — an original, Essex-built schooner from 1927 — looms as a decayed apparition in the yard of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. The wonder that surrounds them both makes it easy to miss the H.A. Burnham shipbuilding yard altogether.

Tucked along a residential lane, the yard is a peaceful place that tumbles down a slope to the water’s edge. Finding it feels a bit like stumbling upon a junkyard: In addition to piles of live-edge lumber, there’s a rusted fuel tank loaded with wood scraps, mooring balls, truck tires, cement blocks and foam bedding. The giveaways that this is the right spot are the sawmill and a pile of logs at the top of the slope. Water, wood and marsh muffle the sounds of hammering amid several wooden boats on jackstands.

“The yard is in full splendor right now,” yard owner Harold Burnham says with a deadpan tone.

Isabella at Harold Burnham’s yard in Essex, Massachusetts. Burnham is descended from generations of shipbuilders.

Isabella at Harold Burnham’s yard in Essex, Massachusetts. Burnham is descended from generations of shipbuilders.

Wearing Carhartt pants, a blue flannel shirt and black deck shoes — all begrimed with an honest life’s hard work — Burnham gives opposing impressions. One is of a person more comfortable with lumber than people, but who has learned to soliloquize for the public’s benefit. The other is a man of quiet humor, one with much-expressed appreciation for everything in his life, from culture and community to friends and mentors.

He launches into the latter, talking about Essex, a topic that deeply engages him as a boatbuilder and a descendant of the area’s first settlers.

“It’s really an old culture,” he says. “Through the number of vessels built here and the relatively small population of the town, the culture became important. The fact that so many people are so encouraging of my business today shows that it’s still part of how the town identifies itself.”

Burnham and his son Alden are restoring Maria, a Friendship sloop built by Burnham’s father in the 1970s and named after his mother. 

Burnham and his son Alden are restoring Maria, a Friendship sloop built by Burnham’s father in the 1970s and named after his mother. 

Burnham is a master shipwright, designer, mariner and National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. He grew up watching his father and mentors such as Brad Story, another descendant of an enduring Essex boatbuilding family, and spent time studying old drawings, documents, photographs and boats, and interviewing older residents. Today, Burnham is deeply knowledgeable about traditional boatbuilding, the sort that made Essex famous as the provider of ships to the great fishing community of neighboring Gloucester. Burnham’s is said to be the only shipyard in the country that regularly designs and builds vessels derived from that historic period, using the techniques of sawn frames and trunnel fastenings that harken back a hundred years or more.

Since 1990, he’s built six wooden schooners, restored many wooden boats and consulted on historic boat restorations, including one underway in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, of the Essex-built schooner Ernestina-Morrissey. She was built in 1894 as a Grand Banks fishing schooner and today serves as the official tall ship of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, and I’m incredibly passionate about everything I do,” he says. “It’s about doing the very best you can.”

Burnham designs and builds boats the old-fashioned way, with every part coming from his shop: lumber milling, metalwork, rig and sails. 

Burnham designs and builds boats the old-fashioned way, with every part coming from his shop: lumber milling, metalwork, rig and sails. 

Burnham became enamored of the trade in grade school, when his father, Charles — a physicist and amateur boatbuilder — let his three children build dories. “It was really fun,” Burnham says. “That was basically the start of my professional boatbuilding career. And I’m still at it. And everything we’ve ever made with the business, we’ve reinvested. So we’ve stayed pretty poor.”

Standing on family land that overlooks a quiet tidal river winding itself into the heart of town, Burnham flips that position. “I live on the water, and my family’s grown up on the water, and I have a dock out front,” he says. “So how poor can I really be?”

Three Burnham brothers arrived here in the 1630s. They were among the first settlers from England, part of the Puritan migration. A local legend says it was a Burnham who built the first vessel here. Since then, according to the Essex Historical Society, townspeople have produced an estimated 4,000 vessels. In 1852, there were 15 shipyards along the river, and one of every 28 ships sailing under an American flag was reportedly built in Essex. Each of those vessels likely had a Burnham helping to build it. The historical society quotes a Burnham ancestor, writing in the mid-1800s, about how the shipbuilding industry “so dominated Essex that it touched the lives of every one of its citizens and transformed the town into one large shipbuilding factory. It is truly amazing that a town so small could have had such a huge impact.”

Burnham is a master shipwright, designer, mariner and a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. 

Burnham is a master shipwright, designer, mariner and a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. 

The industry faded after World War II, as fish stocks fell and steel and fiberglass came in. The Burnham family’s yard (the land and house belong to others in the family, the boatbuilding shops to Burnham) has been in the family since the early 1800s. Burnham earned a degree in maritime transportation from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, then spent six years in the Merchant Marine. Returning home in the early ‘90s, he married, began a family and started operations, building himself a 22-foot sloop named Kim to take passengers on lobster charters. In 1996, he received his first major commission: construction of the 65-foot Thomas E. Lannon.

As it happens, the man who commissioned the Lannon, Tom Ellis, pulls into Burnham’s driveway. Burnham becomes friends with his customers and lets folks use his yard, so Ellis is building a houseboat here. How did Ellis hook up with Burnham on the Lannon? “Just lucky,” Ellis says with a laugh.

At the time, Ellis was a retailer and contractor. “I was sharpening tools with Brad Story for years,” he says. “That’s a custom they have here. After work, the guys got together and sharpened their tools and had some rum or beer. Today, if someone says, ‘Hey, you want to go sharpening tools?’ it means they want to go drinking.” Ellis asked Story to build him a schooner for passenger tours. “He said, ‘Oh, God, I’m too old for this. We’ve got to go see Harold.’ I’d watched Harold and knew he could probably do it.”

Burnham, then 29, carved a half-model for a twin-masted 90-foot schooner, gathered a crew and worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, according to the Lannon website. “It was built completely by hand, using lumber cut from local trees, and by shaping and fitting every piece from the keel to the masts and spars,” the site states. “It has mahogany above the waterline, white oak below, with a 9-foot draft under 1,700 square feet of sail. Attention to tradition and detail is evident in the more than 2,000 black locust trunnels, or dowels, holding it all together.”

Other commissions followed. In 1998, Burnham built the Essex Shipbuilding Museum’s flagship, the 30-foot Lewis H. Story, a re- creation of a Colonial-era workboat called a Chebacco, which preceded the grand fishing schooners.

Burnham built the “pinky” schooner Ardelle during a slow period, using recycled lumber and volunteer labor. She works as a tour boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts. 

Burnham built the “pinky” schooner Ardelle during a slow period, using recycled lumber and volunteer labor. She works as a tour boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts. 

Then Burnham built a 50-foot replica of a privateer schooner from the War of 1812, the Fame of Salem, now chartering out of Salem, Massachusetts. Fame launched in 2003, attracting 2,000 spectators.

In 2006, Burnham launched the 38-foot Isabella, a two-masted fishing schooner that’s in private hands.

After that, Burnham continued to gather wood for the next commission, but it didn’t come. So he built a two-masted, 58-foot “pinky” fishing schooner named Ardelle for himself, for use as a tour boat, operating during the summers out of Gloucester. Over the years, he’s also worked on the restoration of the 122-foot schooner Adventure, a national historic landmark built in 1926 in Essex and operating out of Gloucester, and dozens of other wooden boats, from lobster boats to yachts.

Now Burnham is mentoring his son Alden in the restoration of the Friendship sloop Maria, which Burnham’s father built in the 1970s. “The house is right in the boatyard, so when I was younger, I was always around the boatbuilding,” Alden says. “But I’d never really done a whole lot until this year.”

Last September, Alden received an apprenticeship grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for the project. “So I’m working with the master, which is my dad,” he says.

The Maria was in bad shape, but they wanted to save her. “If it were any other boat, it would have been best to chop it up for firewood,” Alden says, “but you can’t do that to a boat named after your grandmother.”

Burnham is heartened by younger people getting into the trade. “This is what I do, and I enjoy it, but it’s also important to encourage other people to do it,” he says. “You don’t want to be somebody who knows something rare. It’s better to be part of something that’s bigger.”

Fame of Salem was built by Burnham and launched in 2003. 

Fame of Salem was built by Burnham and launched in 2003. 

A 1955 Bud McIntosh-built schooner, Bald Eagle, is here for repairs. Geoff Deckebach is hand-planing planks, and Henry Szostek is installing new blades in the power planer. Szostek doesn’t work for Burnham, but he got a nice gift of oak from him to build a pedal-powered peapod, so he’s returning the favor.

Burnham says his most important piece of equipment is the sawmill. White oak and white pine logs are stacked alongside. One white pine is 3 feet in diameter and probably 125 years old. White pine carves easily, finishes nicely and resists rot. Most of it grows in eastern Massachusetts. This log will yield 800 board feet of material, enough to plank the Maria.

“When I see a tree in the woods, I’ll notice the beautiful tree, but I’ll also notice the parts,” he says. “So the logs come in and I can tell what I’m going to make. I know the different sizes for different parts, and the boats I build are similar sizes, so I can cut out the parts right here.”

He leads the way down the slope to sheds where he dries the planks. “When I have this shed filled with oak so that you can’t put your hand in it, I have all the planking I need to build a 60-foot schooner,” he says. Behind the sheds is a small creek where he wet-stores his keel and framing stock.

In the main building, one wall is hung with half-models, most carved by Burnham. He lofts his designs and sews sails upstairs.

“We mill our own timber. We do our own metalwork,” he says. “We make our own sails. We do our own rigging. We do our own design. We cut the wood.”

Designing comes from long experience, starting with a half-model, then consulting with a naval architect.

“It’s always good to have a second opinion, particularly with the Coast Guard-inspected boats,” he says. “And if you ask the opinion of somebody who knows what they’re looking at, you’re going to get a better product.”

During a recent two-week period, Burnham was prepping the Ardelle, traveling to Maine for the Ernestina-Morrissey, running his yard and getting his scuba certification. He also serves as the shipbuilding museum’s president, works with local schoolchildren and gives talks.

“I’m about as strung out as anyone can be,” Burnham says. “People who work on Wall Street have nothing on me. But I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, and I’m incredibly passionate about everything I do. I feel it’s all important, and it’s all good, and I’m very fortunate to be in a position to do all these different things.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.